New York

Eugène Atget

Witkin Gallery

Berenice Abbot, Eugène Atget’s great champion, made over a hundred new prints from Atget negatives to be exhibited with a few vintage prints at Witkin. Many of the images were familiar ones, but others were from less interesting or even damaged negatives which are not frequently seen. There are few of Atget’s wonderful views of parks and statuary, and the show concentrates instead on views of shop windows, interiors, and Paris streets.

The most interesting of Atget’s pictures suggest stages without the actors. As Walter Benjamin noted, many of Atget’s photographs resemble photos of the scene of the crime, so vigorously do they strive for the exact recording of objects and their placement, for careful documentation of entrances and exits, spaces and closures. Atget records the locale, not the action. In one image in the current show a shining, empty bar juts like an altar out into the foreground, while panels of brightly lit windows curve up and back around it. You expect various drinkers to make entrances and begin relating their stories. A view of a bare courtyard, punctuated by a kiosk and its posters, could be the opening shot of a film: someone seems about to trespass on its emptiness. The famous image of an auto repair shop seems to have been left deserted only because the mechanic stepped outside for a cup of coffee. Even the many photographs of store windows resemble miniature theaters in which the objects—mannequins, lined-up rows of shoe trees—gesture and interact. (It was the peculiarly menacing quality of such objects that endeared Atget to the Surrealists.)

But the scenes imply the lives of the absent characters; they tell more about people, in fact, than Atget’s pictures of people. Views like one included in the show of a rich man giving alms to a beggar looked posed and doctrinaire. Other pictures show individuals simply standing in the street, too far away to really show the expressions on their faces and too far from their shops or dwellings to show what they do.

Curiously, the people Atget is able to photograph most tellingly are prostitutes, leering and leaning out of doorways and corners. They, like the goods in shop windows, are commodities. Sometimes people also seem trapped inside the worlds Atget photographs, like the young boy imprisoned in a newsstand, only his face visible amid a wall of periodicals. One newspaper on the stand is simply a flapping blur; it suggests a terrifying time-lapse view of issue giving way to issue, headline to headline. A picture of a group of ragpickers shows heads blurring and breaking, while a dog in the middle is simply a dark whirl. These blurs are a camera effect Atget chose to use, even though it was technically obsolete. It is as if Atget were conscious of photography’s inherent inability to capture human mutability, and concentrated instead on the stability of the things on which human beings have left their marks.

Atget manipulates space to create social parable. A picture of the Marche de la Madeleine shows flower stands barred with shadows and slats of light, clustering under foliage. Above the foliage stand the classical columns of a large public building, in direct sunlight. The view is a metaphor for class division. Similarly, Atget’s views of Versailles contradict those of the postcards: they seem to show the view of the groundskeepers, as in one image which looks from the bottom of a set of steps up at the palace tilted strangely backward. The king has left the scene as well; his palace is a relic.

Phil Patton